Get to Know Your Oily Skin!

First Posted on July 29, 2021 in:acneoily skinroutine buildskincare fundamentals

The Good, the Bad, the So Shiny!

To be fair, the label of “dry” and “oily” tend to be pretty broad sweeping statements. There’s a lot of nuances within each that factor in such as the climate, acne or no acne, sensitivity, etc. But this is definitely one of the first angles to look at when you're just starting to shape your routine to your specific skin needs even before getting into tackling skin concerns like acne, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, etc. So let’s take a closer look at the biology of oily skin, how to choose products for oily skin, and some top ingredients you should consider incorporating.

"Ugh why even have so much oil?" - The Biology of Oily Skin

oily skin cartoon sebaceous gland

The root of oily skin issues start at the sebaceous gland. Generally, this gland will be attached to a hair follicle and are particularly more concentrated on the face, behind the ears, upper chest, and back. (Acne-skin types do these hot zones sound familiar?).

*Fun fact! The T-zone is a legit area that was found to have a more dense area of larger follicle sebaceous glands that are responsible for more sebum production.

These sebaceous glands are made of cells called sebocytes, which disintegrate to release sebum. Sebum is comprised of wax, squalene, fatty acids, cholesterol, and free sterols. This sebum and its components are an important part of protecting your skin barrier, helping to moisturize your skin, transport crucial antioxidants to defend against free radical damage, and even act as an anti-bacterial Sounds all peachy eh? However, hyperactive sebum production can be too much of a good thing and does become the root of oily skin skin woes. Excessive sebum production leads to an environment that promotes C. acnes growth, skin congestion, and enlarged pores.

We still don’t know what is the main driver of oily skin, except that there’s definitely a strong genetic factor, and seems to be a process heavily dictated by hormones. Particularly, the androgen 5α-dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a key hormone involved in male puberty. Statistically, men tend to have oilier skin than women because of the higher testosterone level. However, women tend to increase sebum production during ovulation due to increased progesterone, and there’s a noted significant decline in sebum secretion post menopause. So to sum up, basically nothing throws a wrench into oily skin issues like hormones! 

How to Skincare with Oily Skin

We’ll still use the same fundamental routine because oily skin types still need to cleanse, moisturize, & sunscreen. We’ll be breaking down the routine in detail with products in our Oily Skin Routine Guide (coming soon):

Cleanser - It’s pretty common for oily skin types to look for that squeaky clean feel as a cue their face is truly clean. Victoria. feels. you. But stripping your face of all your oils doesn’t help the situation, in fact oily skin types still need your good oils and lipids too. Additionally that squeaky clean cue can potentially lead to an unhappy skin barrier and that imbalance can actually aggravate your oily skin imbalance. This will take a little experimenting, but try to start in a gel or cream cleanser format that strikes a balance between cleanse power and gentleness. This is a whimsical description, but you’re sorta looking for a feeling of “ahh my face feels clean without residue”. And definitely don’t feel obligated to shop strictly for cleansers that specifically advertises “for oily skin”. (Formulator secret: there’s no clear cut algorithm to formulating an oily skin cleanser)

If the thought of switching cleansers gives you anxiety, here’s a study to calm your fears. A micro study was done to test if swapping from a typical acne/oily skin cleanser to a significantly milder cleanser would affect acne-skin types. The study found that not only did it not damage the skin barrier, it didn’t create any excess sebum production, and is still effective at deep pore cleansing. 

Moisturizer - Probably the biggest, erroneous myth with oily skin is that you don’t need moisture. The real situation here is that oily skin is more of an imbalance of moisture needs rather than an excess of moisture. For a moisturizer, it’s just a matter of finding the right balance of the three moisturizing ingredients (humectant, emollient, occlusives). 

One method that we’re not really on board with is blindly buying via the “oil-free” claim. Since this claim isn’t regulated, the definition of “oil-free” is all over the place. Some will just simply refrain from using pure plant oils, others will use synthetic oil components, others will replace the oil components with silicone oils. There’s not a lot of science to why they leave out certain oils or include these other oil alternatives so it’s not the most effective way of finding your moisturizer. We typically see oily skin types with a better success rate starting in either one of these two categories:

  1. Go completely oil-free. Some very oily skin types or those living in incredibly humid climates simply need a humectant-happy hydrating serum with zero oil component.
  2. Gel Creams: At the end of the day, most oily skin types still need a small amount of emollients. Gel-creams on average have a better ratio of humectants and oil-emollient components for oily-skin types.

*Lost on figuring out H:E:O ratios of your products? Check out Skincare Decoded’s moisturizer chapter!

Sunscreen - *hisssss... the dreaded sunscreen! As much as it pains Victoria to smear this stuff on, it’s still a necessity to skincare and age prevention. To keep things light and re-appliable, your best bet are fluids that use chemical filters. EU and Asia sunscreens are a great alternative for better textures. But be aware that many Japanese or Korean formulas are catered towards fair skin types and can include some level of pigments that may not fit those with darker skin. Words like “tone” “tone up” are your cue that the sunscreen has a slight tint!

Oily Skin and Skincare Ingredients:

Before getting into the ingredients, know that there’s some extrapolations here that we’ll call out as we go through a few ingredients. This is because most studies are dedicated to acne reduction, rather than long term sebum production regulation. For more long term "oil control", we're looking for tests that look into “pore size reduction” or “sebum reduction”.

Retinoids - The in vitro data (testing via cell culture) suggests that retinoids have been found to reduce sebocytes (the cells responsible for sebum) proliferation, differentiation, and production, but this has not been validated in vivo. In addition, both tazarotene and tretinoin have been found to reduce pore size which has a loose correlation to amount of sebum produced. 

BHA Salicylic acid & a brief mention on other AHAs- Every time you hear oily skin, you already assume salicylic acid is going to be brought up soon after. The reason why is because salicylic acid is slightly oil-soluble making it a great exfoliator that can exfoliate at the pore level and very helpful for targeting clogged pores and acne lesions. But! In terms of sebum reduction, the verdict is still out on whether any of these truly help with long term sebum regulation. 

Niacinamide - One bigger clinical (n=100) found that by using a topical with only 2% niacinamide, they found significant reductions in sebum excretion rates after 2 & four weeks. This paired with its skin barrier help, makes niacinamide a shoo-in for oily skin routines. We enjoy niacinamide in the moisturizer format as opposed to the serum step, simply to save yourself a layering step.

Zinc PCA - A recently trendy active with promising but very sparse data. A lab in Sao Paolo, Brazil did a small clinical (n=20) showed that 1% zinc PCA was helpful in the reduction of sebum after 28 days of use. Since the robustness of data isn’t here for this one, we see zinc PCA more as a nice secondary ingredient for oily skin routines.

Green tea extract - Surprisingly there are a couple studies that have found 3% green tea extract to help reduce sebum after ~8 weeks of use. While more studies are definitely needed and this ingredient certainly isn’t a must have, this would be another nice secondary active to have.

Witch Hazel… [404 data not found]

oily skin tips for your routine


  • If you find yourself lamenting about having oily skin, know that dry skin types have their own set of issues. Grass is definitely not greener. Skin is just a complex organ with all sorts of mechanisms working together to keep skin healthy and act as a good first defense against the outside elements and pathogens. *But we can definitely hate on normal skin types - now those guys definitely won the lotto.
  • While there’s no cures for oily skin, there are definitely steps you can take to modify your routine to help manage oily skin via your fundamental cleanse, moisturize, sunscreen step. 

References for the Curious:



How do I know my skincare is working (and how long does it take??)

We often remind people that regardless of what you read on the interwebs (yes! Even here), always remember to listen to your skin. Unfortunately, sometimes it feels like your skin is speaking pig latin. So how the hell do you really know your skincare is working for you? And real talk… how long is it supposed to take for you to see results? All great questions, and it turns out, different product types have different evaluation criteria. So let’s walk through some skin product evaluation guid...

Read more
chemist confessions guide to acne

The Chemists' Comprehensive Guide to Acne PT. 1

*For severe and cystic acne breakouts, we recommend finding an awesome dermatologist who is willing to help shape and build your acne routine from cleanser to treatment. Dermatologists are the only ones that will be able to prescribe more effective medication. Bring your products in to show your dermatologist so they can get a full understanding of your current regimen and what you’ve already tried. **As a nice supplement, checkout our oily skin guide to build out your skincare routine fundam...

Read more